Montgomery County theatre company Theatre Horizon’s education programs are about more than teaching students how to act or write plays.
For Dawn Loveland Navarro, the director of education outreach at Theatre Horizon, all of the company’s various education programs throughout the year, whether it be the after-school programs or the summer programs, are critical in teaching students the “basic skills of theater that translate into everyday life skills,” like confidence, teamwork and storytelling, she said.
That rings especially true for its Autism Drama Program, which is currently running in its Fall 2017 season and offers pay-what-you-can theatre education to students who are on the autism spectrum. There are two programs within the Autism Drama Program: a youth drama class for students between the ages of 10 and 16, and a storytelling and playwriting class for older students.
The program is one of the four nominees for this year’s Victory Foundation Award for Outstanding Theatre Education Program, which was introduced to the annual Barrymore Awards last year, and is the only one in its category focusing on autism education. Winners will be announced at the awards ceremony on Monday, Oct. 30.
The theatre company has been highlighted for its mission-focused programming before: In February, it tackled the issue of food insecurity in MontCo — Pennsylvania’s second-wealthiest county — with related programming surrounding “Grand Concourse,” its play about a food kitchen.
Teaching theatre to students in the autism spectrum can have a boosted effect in bringing out each students' individual talents and skillsets.
Theatre has been a tool and outlet that other nonprofits have made the focus for engaging students with disabilities spectrum, in addition to making sure it’s accessible for all kinds of audiences. Navarro believes teaching theatre to students in the autism spectrum can have a boosted effect in bringing out each students’ individual talents and skillsets.
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There was one instance when Navarro witnessed an educator who was trying to engage with a student who refused to do anything but draw during class time. Instead of pushing the student into joining whatever the rest of the students were doing, that teacher took what the student was drawing, a picture of New York City, and made it a setting for the other students to act in. The student who was drawing soon found herself engaged much more than before.
This kind of approach to teaching is what Navarro calls a “join, build, celebrate” model, where the focus is on learning what each student is interested or excels in and capitalizing on that.
“You join a student with what they’re doing, you build on what they’re doing to get to the next level whenever they’re ready for it and when they get there, you celebrate and honor it in some way,” Navarro said. “To have a place that says whoever you are is great … that’s what we want. It’s just a different perspective and it’s an environment that many students thrive in.”
John Orr, executive director of the arts accessibility-focused nonprofit Art-Reach and the chair of the committee that determines the Barrymore’s Victory Foundation Award, said the award is recognizing the work that orgs are doing to make sure kids from all backgrounds can access the arts.
The award’s nominees “are raising the bar for the entire theatre community,” Orr wrote in an email. “They are exemplifying best practices in theatre education and they are proudly declaring that arts education is critical to learning and personal growth.”